The Visual Language of Comics


The Visual Language of Comics: Introduction to the Structure and Cognition of Sequential Images. (Bloomsbury Advances in Semiotics) by Neil Cohn (Author)

Drawings and sequential images are an integral part of human expression dating back at least as far as cave paintings, and in contemporary society appear most prominently in comics. Despite this fundamental part of human identity, little work has explored the comprehension and cognitive underpinnings of visual narratives―until now.

This work presents a provocative theory: that drawings and sequential images are structured the same as language. Building on contemporary theories from linguistics and cognitive psychology, it argues that comics are written in a visual language of sequential images that combines with text. Like spoken and signed languages, visual narratives use a lexicon of systematic patterns stored in memory, strategies for combining these patterns into meaningful units, and a hierarchic grammar governing the combination of sequential images into coherent expressions. Filled with examples and illustrations, this book details each of these levels of structure, explains how cross-cultural differences arise in diverse visual languages of the world, and describes what the newest neuroscience research reveals about the brain’s comprehension of visual narratives. From this emerges the foundation for a new line of research within the linguistic and cognitive sciences, raising intriguing questions about the connections between language and the diversity of humans’ expressive behaviours in the mind and brain.

Editorial Reviews


Neil Cohn is diving deeper into comics and the brain than anyone I know now. — Scott McCloud, author ‘Understanding Comics’

-[Neil Cohn’s] theory, presented in The Visual Language of Comics, is provocative … If he is right, the hidden logic of cartoon panels could provide new vistas on art, language and creative development. — David Robson

The Observer Cohn’s book represents a major break away from previous discussions of linguistic structures in other media … He manages to combine a sophisticated theory model with much needed empirical experiments … This is an innovative approach for comic book research, connecting systematic linguistics and cognitive studies in new ways that are a valuable extension of previous discussions. — Janina Wildfeuer Closure (Bloomsbury Translation)

Neil Cohn’s The Visual Language of Comics is a smart, carefully organized, and exceptionally well-argued work of comics scholarship. I suspect it will become one of a very small number of truly crucial texts in the burgeoning field of comics studies. The book provides an original yet persuasive account of the relationship of comics and language and introduces key terms and conceptual distinctions that are likely to become part of the common sense of comics analysis and criticism. It also explores the ways in which comics have been used as tools of communication and self-expression across a variety of cultural contexts. Over the past decade Neil Cohn has published a number of important research articles on comics that make use of his training in linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience. The Visual Language of Comics builds on this interdisciplinary scholarship but it also offers new insights and opens up new avenues of inquiry. Recommended for anyone with an interest in comics, language, and what Richard Gregory calls “the eye-brain system.” — Kent Worcester, Professor of Political Science, Marymount Manhattan College, USA

Neil Cohn thinks about the comics medium and visual literacy on very deep and enlightening levels. In The Visual Language of Comics, Cohn shares his research and insights on how the mind works when processing sequential visuals. It’s fascinating reading for anyone interested in visual communication. — Carl Potts, Former Executive Editor, Marvel Comics and Author of ‘The DC Comics Guide to Creating Comics: Inside the Art of Visual Storytelling’

Being able to tell stories with images is an important and perhaps unique human ability. Neil Cohn has done us all a favor, by analyzing how we can use a visual language theory to analyze comics and other forms of graphic communication; to think deeply about language and the mind. His years of deep thinking, and research, show in this new and provocative book — Frederik L. Schodt is an award-winning writer and translator, whose books on Japanese manga helped trigger their current popularity abroad

[Cohn’s] work exhibits a dogged quest for rigour that gives this book an authoritative tone. [ … ] Perhaps the biggest question the book asks is one that demands consideration by any current or future researcher: ‘why should the brain create several unique and diverse ways to handle different behaviours when it can efficiently make use of various general underlying structures’? Those with the desire to answer … will find this book a thoughtful and useful companion to their studies. — Anthony Farthing, City University London, UK

The Comics Grid In this pioneering book, Neil Cohn opens up a whole new domain of cognitive science: the study of how we derive meaning from sequential images.While borrowing much of his approach from theoretical linguistics and psycholinguistics, Cohn is careful to let the character of the phenomena speak for themselves, appealing to a rich and fascinating selection of examples from a wide range of graphic traditions.His results illuminate the parallels and sharpen the differences among different human cognitive systems. — Ray Jackendoff, Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University, USA

This book offers more than the title implies, transcending The Visual Language of Comics to reveal the structural, rule governed system that constitutes the visual language used in many forms of contemporary communication. One of the most interesting aspects of Cohn’s work is his exploration of the lexicon and grammar of visual language as employed in “dialects” that vary across cultures. Cohn’s arguments are rigorous, but clearly, even entertainingly, supported with scores of visual examples and explanations. — Randy Duncan, Professor of Communication & Theatre Arts, Henderson State University, USA and After reading this book you’ll never look at comics the same way, and your view of language will be broadened as well.

Neil Cohn is a linguist, a cognitive psychologist, and a graphic artist. In this pathbreaking book he brings his diverse skills together to explore and reveal underlying structures of visual language. Careful study of visual narrative in several cultures shows that comics are beautifully patterned and generative, comparable to language and music. Cohn elaborates what he calls the “visual-graphic modality of language,” pointing to a wealth of research possibilities in cognitive neurology, psycholinguistics, and cultural anthropology. — Dan I. Slobin, Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Neil Cohn introduces a new and rigorous set of tools for discussing comics and visual narrative that will influence practitioners as well as academics. His arguments confirm many intuitions of cartoonists about the way comics work while at the same time deflating numerous others. I believe it will significantly enrich the discourse in this still-developing area of study. — Matt Madden, author of 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style and co-author with Jessica Abel of the textbooks Drawing Words & Writing Pictures and Mastering Comics

Combining expertise in psychology and linguistics with skills in draftsmanship, Cohn explores the analogies between comics and verbal language with exciting results. By unveiling patterns in all stylistic dimensions of comics’ visuals, this book is not just indispensable reading for comics scholars, but also constitutes a major contribution to the discipline of visual studies more generally. — Charles Forceville, Associate Professor, Department of Media Studies, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands Book Description

Book Description

Outlines a complete narrative theory of how a reader creates meaning from a sequence of images, applying this to narratives in film and discourse.

About the Author

Neil Cohn is an internationally recognized scholar for his research on the overlap of sequential images and language in cognition. He is the author of Early Writings on Visual Language and Meditations, and the illustrator of We the People (with Thom Hartmann), and A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning (by Ray Jackendoff). His work is online at


Neil Cohn is an American cognitive scientist internationally recognized for his research on the overlap of the structure and cognition of sequential images and language. He received his doctorate in Psychology from Tufts University working with the renowned linguist Ray Jackendoff. Having originally started working in the comic industry as a teenager, his creative work includes We the People (with Thom Hartmann, 2004), Meditations (2005), and A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning (by Ray Jackendoff, 2012).

In 2003 he released his first book on this research, Early Writings on Visual Language, and his most recent book, The Visual Language of Comics (Bloomsbury, 2013), introduces a broad framework for studying visual narratives in the cognitive sciences, which will be followed by his edited compilation The Visual Narrative Reader (Bloomsbury, 2015). His work is online at

Product details

Are you fluent in a visual language?

ByLisa Hosokawaon October 16, 2014

Format: Paperback

When I started drawing again about a year ago (after a 20-year break), I noticed an immediate effect on my children, ages 5 and 7 at the time. Every time I tried something new, they would take inspiration from it and create their own versions. This started me thinking about imitation as a natural way to learn to draw. The three of us formed a small drawing community — we drew together, talked about drawing, invited other people to draw with us, and started to seek out examples of other people drawing. Together we examined finished products in the form of picture books, comics, and animation. A year later, my children are known at school as being “talented” in drawing. I knew that this was about exposure, imitation, and practice, but I didn’t have a theory to explain why. Now, thanks to Neil Cohn, I do. Comics are important in this book, but I do not see it as being “about comics.” It is about rethinking our concept of “language arts” and seeing that maximizing our human potential requires cultural transmission of verbal, bodily, and visual languages.

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